Not merely a triple threat, Victor Young was known as a violinist, arranger, film composer, songwriter, conductor and record producer. This wide experience in all forms of music, from his first hit song,Sweet Sue, Just You in 1928 to his tremendous score for "Around the World in 80 Days" in 1956, was exceptional even by Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood standards, all the more so because his international reputation was achieved in such a short lifetime.
Young was born in Chicago on 8 August 1900 into a very musical family, his father being a member of one Joseph Sheehan’s touring Opera company. The young Victor began playing violin at the age of six, and was sent over to Poland when he was ten to stay with his grandfather and study at Warsaw Imperial Conservatory with teachers of the calibre of Lotto, Barcesicz, Statkowsky and Yarsembsky (for those who recognise the names), achieving the Diploma Of Merit.
While still a teenager he embarked on a career as a concert violinist with the Warsaw Philharmonic under Julius Wertheim before returning to Chicago in 1920 to join the orchestra at Central Park Casino. He then went to Los Angeles to join his Polish fiancée, finding employment first as a fiddler in impresario Sid Grauman's Million Dollar Theatre Orchestra then going on to be appointed concert-master for Paramount-Publix Theatres.
He went into dance music in 1926 as violinist/arranger for the Dan Russo-Ted Fio Rito Oriole Orchestra, later that same year joining Ben Pollack and his Californians, recording with both bands for RCA Victor in Chicago. But he really made his mark with the Isham Jones band when, on 16 May 1930 he rearranged a Hoagy Carmichael up-tempo instrumental piece as a ballad with his own romantic violin solo. So it was really Victor Young who gave us Stardust in the form it has been ever since.
He did RCA sessions with Jean Goldkette’s studio band over the period June-September 1929, directing the band on two titles and playing violin on the rest, then conducted trombonist Jesse Stafford’s 12-piece band in two 1931 Brunswick sessions. He finally was appointed as MD of the Brunswick house band including the Dorseys, Bunny Berigan, Eddie Lang, Jack Teagarden, Red Norvo, Joe Venuti, Sterling Bose & co, with vocals by the Boswell Sisters, Dick Robertson, Lee Wiley and other guests. In l934 it turned into the Decca house band, but the Victor Young personnel and style remained the same; interestingly, Victor conducted the first Al Bowlly New York sessions even before Al made his first NY records with Ray Noble
All this time he had been producing vaudeville shows and conducting on radio in Chicago and New York, and had already started his song writing career with the fore-mentioned Sweet Sue, to which a fellow vaudeville director-producer, Will J. Harris contributed the words (Victor never did his own lyrics). He followed up with standards like Ghost Of A Chance, A Hundred Years From Today, Love Me Tonight, Can’t We Talk It Over? Love Is The Thing, all with lyrics by his long-term partner Ned Washington; Street Of Dreams, Too Late and Lawd You Made The Night Too Long, all with lyrics by Sam M. Lewis; Beautiful Love (Wayne King, Haven Gillespie, Edgar Van Alstyne), and The Old Man Of The Mountain with lyrics by Billy Hill, who wrote pseudo-country songs from Tin Pan Alley.
Victor Young went to the West Coast in 1935 and seldom left it, becoming as prolific a writer of film background scores and title songs as he had been as a songwriter. In all he did over 300 films, early among them being "Klondike Annie" (1936), "Wells Fargo" (1937), "The Glass Key" and "Reap the Wild Wind" (1942). Then he got into the big stuff with his monumental score for "For Whom the Bell Tolls", followed by "The Blue Dahlia", "To Each His Own", "The Big Clock", "Frenchman’s Creek", "The Searching Wind" and "The Greatest Show On Earth" etc.
He didn’t orchestrate everything he wrote for the screen (I don’t imagine he had the time), but used experienced arranger/composers such as Leo Shuken and Sidney Cutner to fill out his sketches. It was also a peak period for Young as a writer of melodic film themes like Stella By Starlight from "The Uninvited" and the title song from "My Foolish Heart" (both lyricised by Ned Washington). Other title songs by Young, which became evergreens, were Golden Earrings (Livinstone & Evans) and Love Letters (Edward Heyman).
These brought him up to the 1950’s and a new Decca regime that saw the Victor Young Orchestra and Singing Strings in a series of LPs that were the precursors of the Mood Music idiom which was to have such an effect on popular orchestral material in the years to come. The orchestra turned out upwards of three dozen LPs of the nature of "Hollywood Rhapsodies", "Pearls On Velvet", "Cinema Rhapsodies", "Sugar And Spice", "Love Themes From Hollywood", "Forever Young", "After Dinner Music", "Night Music", as well as his soundtrack albums of such outstanding movies as "The Quiet Man", "Samson and Delilah", "Johnny Guitar" and, of course, "Around the World in 80 Days", which earned him a posthumous Academy Award
Victor had started receiving Oscar nominations as soon as he started work in Hollywood, many of them for Republic westerns and other pictures nobody ever heard of at the time or since. But there were major movies for which he earned nominations, such as "The Emperor Waltz", "Golden Boy", "Arise My Love", "North-West Mounted Police", "Hold Back the Dawn" and others.... eighteen in all.
This was in addition to his work on radio with Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Don Ameche and other stars that kept him even busier than films. For Decca (Brunswick in the UK) he did 84 sides with Dick Haymes and as many (or more) with Crosby, recorded many singles including, would you believe(?) tap—dancing records, and gave beautifully melodic backings to Tommy Dorsey’s trombone in "Ecstasy", an album I wish would reappear on CD. About the same time (1954), I loved his "Musical Sketches", including three Young originals that I lost years ago and haven’t heard since, In A November Garden, Arizona Sketches and Manhattan Concerto.
Even in the last years of his life the song hits kept on coming from this talented man (why don’t we just say genius and be done with it?). With Edward Heyman he wrote When I Fall In Love and Blue Star, the theme from TV’s "Medic" series, proving he still had what it takes. He also did the music for Jack Elliot’s Weaver Of Dreams, a semi-hit for Nat King Cole, and The Call Of The Faraway Hills (with Mack David) from the memorable western "Shane" was another to add to Victor Young’s treasury of evergreens.
His last-ever hit (and probably his greatest screen success), was Around The World with Harold Adamson, but, strangely though Victor won an Academy Award for his entire score he didn’t receive one for the song! It wasn’t all success however, and we should ignore his musical version of the old (1927/1937) movie "Seventh Heaven", which flopped on Broadway the year before he died from a heart attack at his Palm Springs home on 11 November 1956. The world lost one of its most talented musicians and writers, a man noted for his melodic gifts, which shone through all he ever did.
For a last word from a contemporary, I remember asking Gordon Jenkins once what he thought of Victor Young, his Decca rival. His reply was that Victor was a lovely man and a wonderful composer, "but he always had a bad band - full of relatives and refugees from the old country who needed work".
NB. Victor Young should not be confused with another composer of the same name, born in Tennessee in 1889 who did some early sound film music, made piano rolls, and also wrote operettas, ballets and novelty songs.
© Arthur Jackson - May 2004